While science is exciting and interesting, many aspects of the scientific practise are difficult and stressful. Navigating research can be a huge challenge for early career researchers, particularly if the academic hierarchies are not structured well. It is crucial to discuss systemic issues that plague the academic landscape. Talking openly about systemic racism, harassment, poor work-life balance and other issues may be uncomfortable, but it is very much necessary. In my blog, I want to talk about why many early career researchers feel overwhelmed and stressed, and what can be done to alleviate their problems.
The Research Process
The importance of looking after mental health and maintaining a healthy work-life balance cannot be overstated. Even under the very best of circumstances, doing a PhD or a postdoc is a challenging task. The very nature of research is that it doesn’t always proceed in the way it was planned. There are a lot of setbacks and failures not only in experiments, but also in acquiring funding, publishing manuscripts, adapting to a new environment (especially abroad) and managing living expenses with a meagre stipend. There are a lot of ups and downs because it’s around 4-5 years of challenging work with considerable stress. At one point, I experienced a lot of anxiety and felt that the stress was unbearable. Many students feel the additional burden of uncertainty in decent job prospects after undergoing a tortuous journey. In some unfortunate cases, some people, though really talented and deserving, aren’t able to bear the stress due to lack of support. There are many cases of depression among graduate students, which is quite alarming . This alone is reason enough for drastic changes in policy so that researchers experience support and feel valued. However, academia is highly resistant to change and any improvements usually occur only incrementally . I believe there is an urgent need to bring in policies that create an inclusive and supportive environment.
A Bullying Culture
My own experience while pursuing a PhD led me to reflect on why this happens in the first place. Why do so many bright students, who embark on a potentially life-changing and exciting journey feel disillusioned? I believe it is because academic research is set up in a way that allows for bullies to thrive .
The power dynamics are skewed, which means that a research supervisor wields lot of power over their grad students and postdocs. The lab culture often depends on the PI, and there are widespread differences even within the same department based on the PI’s personality and management style. There may not be much scope for correcting aggressive or toxic behaviour some principal investigators (PIs) exhibit. Often, such supervisors display scant concern for the overall well-being of their students and focus only on lab work. This is mainly due to the sheer pressure to constantly publish and secure grants for advancing in their careers, and partly due to the PI’s misplaced need to improve their metrics .
The process I have described above commonly leads to abusive supervision. Though it may appear shocking to people outside academia, many grad students are still yelled at and demeaned publicly, asked to work unreasonable hours without proper pay and forced to give up leave. Some PIs themselves don’t have a work-life balance and have trouble managing their emotions. It is no surprise that their students bear the brunt. The worst part is that such behaviour is repeated frequently during the course of the student’s research, which can affect morale and confidence. In my experience, most of this behaviour goes unreported because students fear for their degree, and a lot is at stake. While many universities have an anti-bullying policy, I have found that it is not always implemented properly. This does nothing to check unwanted behaviour and bullies continue their behaviour. Students who have experienced bullying can experience various problems with mental and physical health. This has huge impacts on the students, and can hamper the well-being and productivity of an entire lab . Some of these students may themselves become abusive supervisors in the future, perpetuating a horrible cycle .
My PhD research was littered with several of the above behaviours. Though my research supervisor was okay, I had the misfortune of working with another faculty whose behaviour was, to say the least, abusive. He would frequently speak in a disparaging and patronising manner, which impacted me negatively. Being relatively inexperienced, I initially ignored and put up with it, ignoring the adverse impact it had on me. He also delayed several of my projects, which did nothing to improve my confidence.
Finally, when it was overwhelming, I approached him and politely tried explaining the matter, but he got into a fury and started yelling at the top of his voice. I was deeply shattered and shaken, but out of fear, I just kept silent. One of the worst things was that other faculty and even my HoD knew about this aspect of his behaviour (he had done it to other people too), but they chose to entirely ignore the matter. I experienced the same behaviour yet again, and once in public. Needless to say, it was one of the darkest episodes and it had a profound effect on my psyche.
Things came to a head when two of my manuscripts were rejected on the same day and being bitterly disappointed, I expressed regret at having joined for research. This acted as a trigger for him and he became furious, screaming and abusing me in every manner. It was then I decided that I would fight back and tolerate this nonsense no longer. When I reported the matter to the administration, they appointed a disciplinary committee, but nothing came out of it. He was in fact let off with just a warning, and no efforts were made to ensure his behaviour would not be repeated. No one understood the damage and stress his behaviour caused me. I ended my collaboration with him and completed my PhD with my supervisor’s support. In total contrast, my post doc advisor is totally amazing and supportive, completely understands the problems I face and is an excellent mentor. I have experienced both ends of the spectrum, and I totally understand how it feels when students are struggling under pressure with no support.
So what can be done to tackle these issues? Firstly, the importance of good mentoring should be recognised by universities. PIs in some of the most productive labs emphasize maintaining a healthy lifestyle. From my personal experience, I feel that PIs who are supportive, student-friendly and caring tend to bring out the best in their students. They encourage their students to be the best version of themselves and help them fulfil their dreams. If many more PIs become like this, then academia would be a vastly improved place. Sadly, not all PIs are like this, and universities must train their faculty to become good mentors. A good mentor encourages creativity, gives reasonable independence and alters their mentoring style to suit students’ personalities instead of following a “one size fits all” approach. Since failure is commonly encountered in research, it is important to use them to inspire a new approach. This is possible only with an open mind-set, discussion and encouragement. Supervisors should lead by inspiration, not by fear. Supervisors leading by inspiration help their students in difficult times and bring out their best, while focusing on solutions. Supervisors leading by fear blame their students, create panic among their students and do not accept failures. It is during the hard times that the supervisor is needed the most.
Universities must also ensure that good mentoring is rewarded. While publications and grants matter, they must not be the sole criteria for promotions. I believe that people should be not defined by their number of publications or citations. This point is essential, as academic culture gives a lot of importance to publication indices and not to the actual welfare of people. The students’ feedback on mentoring must be considered as well for promotions. Additionally, there should be mentors for grad students who are not connected with research work. Universities must ensure that students feel comfortable sharing their problems with their supervisor/mentor. Clear policies on harassment and bullying are a must in every university. Even more crucially, these policies need to be implemented irrespective of whether the bully is a professor or not. If universities don’t take complaints from students seriously enough, especially if the complaint is against a faculty member, it only complicates matters. In such cases, the problem can be magnified for the student if the person harassing them gets away. A strong deterrent is needed to ensure bullies do not get away with their behaviour.
There must certainly be an urgent change in eliminating the negative culture within academia. Creating an inclusive environment that focuses on well-being as much as it focuses on productivity is essential. No amount of achievement is worth it if it wrecks health and demoralises people. Overall, success should never come at the cost of well-being. The productivity and accomplishments will fade with time, but how mentors treated their students will be a part of their real legacy. Academia has a moral obligation towards its researchers, and must ensure to protect, support and empower the next generation of scholars.
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Kartik Aiyer is currently a postdoctoral researcher in the Indian Institute of Technology (Delhi). His research includes the study of electroactive bacteria in microbial electrochemical systems. He completed his PhD from the Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning in the field of bioelectrochemistry. He is passionate about making a positive change in academia, and is also a running enthusiast.